Original release: May 5th, 2010
Running time: 154 mins
Original language: English/Japanese
Writer and director: Gaspar Noe
Cast: Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy, Olly Alexander, Masato Tanno, Ed Spear
I don’t want to sound too exquisite or histrionic, but if you like your films and music and books and plays you’ll probably have found that once in a while a work of art will detonate a bomb in your senses powerful enough to make your hands tremble and agitate every nerve in a rush up your spine to your brain to the thing you are behind your eyes where it bursts and the bursts burst like a beatific fission of stars.
Enter the Void is a Manhattan Project for the art-bomb. For many hours later I was picking through the mental rubble, dazed by its brilliance. Visually mesmerising, psychologically dauntless, thematically expansive, bravely and piously performed, violent, tender, disgraceful, exalted, excruciating, sublime: Gaspar Noé, filmmaker, firebrand and Frenchman, has gone nuclear.
Let’s start where most will. It is a passionately sordid film. A film, as some will say, as some including Noé have said, for teenagers. An outrageous film which wants to shock the shockable just as adolescence craves scandal to redeem the bourgeois world from its treacherous stupefaction and amnesia, not for spite or jealousy but with conciliatory longing. A memento vita that we are, despite the diversions and decorations, a gross, self-interested, duplicitous and moribund species.
Noé, whose previous movie Irréversible provoked outrage for its explicit depiction of rape, is not one to deflect his attention from the ugliest, most painful and most depraved expressions of life. He seems to take the pre-Socratic attitude that to be born is itself the greatest misfortune. Human life is the unique potential for extreme suffering; and suffer many do in this his third feature, by the filmmaker’s account a “psychedelic melodrama” about- though such a feeble preposition cannot do this wonderwork any justice- the afterlife or dying hallucination of a young American killed by the Tokyo police in a drug raid.
After an epileptically hypnotising title sequence we wake in the forehead of Oscar, a young West coast emigrant who is in denial about his borderline professional commitment to drug dealing.
He lives with his sister Linda in a filthy apartment irradiated by lurid neon cascading in from the Tokyo nightscape. They mumble to one another about aeroplanes and dying and when she leaves, Oscar, whose saturated thoughts we sometimes catch out of the miasma of diegetic music, locks the door and loads a pipe with DMT. DMT is a powerful psychedelic compound which, some scientists have hypothesized, is released from the pineal gland in the instants preceding death or its anticipation. Hence near death experiences.
We descend with Oscar into a reverie of mesmerising geometric and organic patterns which persist for several minutes. Out of the vapour the sound of ringing. It’s his phone. He has to deliver some drugs. He and his friend Alex leave the apartment and walk to a nightclub called The Void. They talk about The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Oscar remarks, repeating Peter Pan, that to die sounds like an awesome trip. I loved the patience of this scene: the journey is covered unexpurgated from departure to destination, something I can’t recall ever seeing on film before.
Oscar enters The Void. He is shot in a toilet cubicle as he attempts to dispose of his stash. He seems to die, his thoughts whispering just the kind of puzzled questions one would expect a dying person to ask themselves (“did they shoot me? Am I dying? No, no, it’s just a dream”). The point-of-view floats away from Oscar’s body.
Apart from its mystical aspect, which Noé as a strict materialist has disavowed, this death’s-eye-view is a beautifully effective (and affective) narrative device, crystallising a lifetime like near death experiences are said to. Oscar’s posthumous omniscience allows the story, which is as much about Linda as her brother, to travel backwards and forwards in time from the introduction in medias res.
It also facilitates the representation of realities beyond human perception, e.g. subatomic and microcellular imagery. And last but not least we get to enjoy some spectacularly transporting hallucinogenic visuals.
Append to this a superlative childhood trauma and the exaltingly repugnant sexual theories of Dr. Freud, and Enter the Void becomes a ruthlessly, savagely, deliriously beautiful symphony of yearning and loss. The pornographically candid penultimate scenes, in which Oscar’s sister and friends visit a mythologised transformation of one of Tokyo’s “love hotels”, invoke the cursed blessing of those magic words the good doctor held a mirror up to: all is permissible.
Noé has always divided the critics and this film has if anything provoked more violent disagreement than his previous two features. The hecklers- preoccupied with their own prurience in the face of such seductive openness- will miss the tenderness and compassion of this profoundly searching work about, to put it one way, emigration: from womb, from home, from sobriety, from life.
To put it another way, as the filmmaker has, Enter the Void is about “the sentimentality of mammals and the shimmering vacuity of the human experience.” A silent lyricism, impossibly echoed by the impossibility of Oscar’s living death, flickers at the apogee of human degradation and the limits of meaninglessness; and only under the pressure of life at its most awful and extreme can beauty really survive. Here it does.
Dominic is an English graduate, promiscuous dilettante and epistemological liability. He likes the sentimentalisation of loathsomeness, fetishized Teutonic Romanticism, the labour theory of value and Manchester United’s transcendent Bulgarian striker, Dimitar Berbatov. He abominates Certainty, curses The Wealth of Nations, and detests only mayonnaise more than asinine bathetic turns.
His favourite kinds of film are laborious, unyielding, laboriously unyielding, anything you’ve never heard of, and pornographic. At twenty-three, his achievements include A Spectroscopic Study of the Notion of Perineum in Jane Austen’s Later-Early Period, for which he won a MOBO award, and this sentence.